The Story of Stories

By Julie Lindahl

Founder, Stories for Society

It all started a decade ago in a small primary school of fewer than one hundred children in the Swedish countryside outside of Stockholm. I was an outsider who had come to settle there, and asked myself how I could make a difference in this otherwise seemingly self-sufficient little community. I had come to this place with an academic background in English Literature and International Affairs, an entrepreneurial venture in health and wellness, a life lived in many countries and a passion for stories. As English is compulsory for all children in Swedish schools, I offered to read English language stories to children between the ages of 9-11 once a week.  I am sure it was partly because I always brought a tin of home-baked cookies with me, but I also like to believe that it was the universal appeal of the classic tales I tried to bring to life that made these sessions increasingly popular.  Parents of children in the pre-school got wind of the sessions and asked whether I could begin reading to their children, who were as young as two years of age.

We had great fun because the stories became a dialogue. I would read a bit of English and translate into Swedish, but mostly we’d talk about what was happening in the stories and why. For the very young children, I had paper and pens in the middle of our story-reading circle on the floor, so that they could express their thoughts about the stories – mostly the pictures in the stories – in shapes and pictures on paper.  The children learned a few words in English, but what was most important was that they were able to express and discuss things that were on their minds, provoked by happenings in the stories. The sessions became less about story-telling than story-making. Frequently, I found the thoughts provoked by the stories about life and growing up were some of the most essential and also the most complex: questions about birth, death and everything that came in between cropped up. Over time it became clear to me that the opportunity to discuss the very big issues the children raised in the safe context of a story could play an important role in the intellectual, emotional and even physical development of children.

As the summer holidays approached a number of the older children expressed the wish to continue the story sessions during the summer. In response to this, I set up a summer camp at my island home near the community, where the children could spend one day per week listening to and discussing English language stories and playing a range of games related to them. Our adventures were many, and through these days together on the island we learned many things about one another and ourselves. Through these experiences, we began to weave our own stories together. The summer camp ran for three summers.

After one of these summers, I became convinced that group story-making could make an important contribution to fun in learning and the quality of teaching if only there was a method that teachers and students found accessible and possible to use with some frequency. Foremost in my thoughts was that stories could help to develop socialization skills that were not only good for emotional health, but also critical to success in social and working environments that the children would later on find themselves in as young adults. In other words, story-making with others was a 21st Century skill.

I approached the principal of the school I had worked in and a friend of mine, MaiBritt Giacobini-Arnér, who at that time had founded an important new children’s psychiatric health care clinic in Stockholm, Prima Barn och Ungdomspsykiatri AB. The goal of this three-way collaboration was to come up with a group story-making method that could be used in the classroom for the purposes of learning in specific subject matter areas, as well as for supporting healthy social and emotional development. The experience of group story-making on the island during the summers had been so strong, that I fashioned the method around the core ideas of a group, an island and a visitor, a model which has subsequently proven to be extremely useful to address diverse topics. I was certainly not alone in the development of this core idea and had the unspeakable good luck that a small group of dynamic and passionate persons believed in the work enough to join me.

Also at this time, I approached, amongst others, Manne af Klintberg, fondly known as Manne the Clown by young children, their parents and grandparents in Sweden. I met Manne briefly at a seminar he was participating in and immediately realized that this was a person with an enormous reserve of emotional intelligence when it came to children. It is largely thanks to Manne that play takes such a central role in Stories for Society’s method. Time after time as he visited schools with us (see below), he showed us not only the dynamics of play, but also why it is so important to children’s development, creativity and problem-solving.

After one year of method development with our partner school and Prima Barn, there were many indications which suggested that the method was useful and that we were onto something. We must credit the principal and teachers at our partner school not only with their faith and patience, but also their insight. Their choice of subject matter allowed for the development of a method that could address the most sensitive issues: Am I good enough? Everyone is the same but not the same. Do you matter to me? Each time our small team returned to reflect on the outcome of our last session in the classroom, we rung with excitement and learning, whatever the many challenges. The fact that Swedish schools were making a transition to a new national teaching plan, which integrated new guidelines and goals for teaching/learning we had incorporated into our method from the beginning, was an important advantage. We moved onto other schools.

As we ran group story-making sessions using our Island Method, we came to the conclusion that the best way to make our method as widely accessible to schools as possible was to train teachers. In collaboration with our partner school, we ran our first teacher training, a 2-day theoretical session followed by 8 weeks of classroom support, once a week. We were delighted to find that the collaboration with our partner school was considered to be one of a small handful of most innovative school projects in the country by Scandinavia’s largest school fair, Skolforum.

During the teacher training, it became clear to us that adults could benefit as much from our Island Method as children and youth. The method offers unique opportunities for problem-solving and team-building that quickly become obvious to those who try it.  The rare chance to access latent knowledge by providing a new playing field where new creative possibilities and collaborations open up is one of the most important dynamics of the method. It occurred to us that the radical new approach of our method could provide a means of tackling hitherto seemingly intractable problems. We created internal working groups to test this thesis with outcomes that were surprising to all involved.

In 2011 the Embassy of the United States in Stockholm commissioned us to run a story-making workshop at the Raoul Wallenberg School in which we addressed the topics of peace and moderation. The resulting stories were presented in a ceremony to commemorate victims of extremist violence on 11 September 2011. Through this experience and others, we realized that we could make a major difference by putting our focus on the issue of tolerance. Within our group it became very quickly apparent that tolerance wasn’t enough. We wanted to use our method to move Beyond Tolerance, to appreciating diversity because it is fun and opens up new possibilities. It was thus that our current initiative was born.

While I have always had the good fortune that the very best people have placed themselves in my way in this process, I am proud that me officially became we in 2010. At this time, Stories for Society was established as a non-profit organization with a remarkable board and network of co-workers.  We come from all walks of life and many different parts of the world. What we share in common is a belief in the transformational power of creating a story together.


This post is also available in: Swedish

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